Depending on your viewpoint, working in downtown Chicago can be described as delicious or dangerous. I’m of course, referring to all the lunch options that abound just outside my door. Back when I lived in Massachusetts, I worked for four years in a tiny town on the North Shore called Wenham. Our office itself was charming, a 100,000 square foot mansion complete with sprawling grounds that had once been a summer retreat. But our lunch options (beyond an on-site cafeteria, that was admittedly pretty delicious in its own right) were limited and required a 10-15 minute car ride. Now, I adore the fact that I have a myriad of dining options at my finger tips, but it also means that I too often forgo a perfectly good and packed-from-home lunch in order to head out with co-workers. Willpower has never been my strength.
Recently we dined for the first time at Frontera Fresco in Macy’s Seven on State food court. The brainchild of the fantastic Rick Bayless, Frontera Fresco is a quick service restaurant where delicious Mexican classics like tortas, tamales, and tacos are handmade to order. The restaurant simpler fare than what I’ve eaten at his Frontera Grill, but it’s perfect when I’m craving something fast, yet inspired for lunch. As soon as I scanned the menu I knew I wanted to order one of the Huaraches, grilled masa flatbreads layered with black beans, chipotle sauce, cheese and toppings. I went for a ‘Tres Quesos,’ which had Chihuahua, Cotija and fresh goat cheese along with yellow and poblano peppers. One bite and I was addicted. I loved how the crisp crust of the flatbread married with the creamy beans and molten cheese. As I sat eating it I was already planning a grocery list in my head so I could make Huaraches at home.
What follows is my version. I ditched yellow peppers in favor of mushrooms to make this a more filling and meaty vegetarian dish though I kept the poblanos because I love their fresh crunch on this dish and the slight, but not overpowering, heat. I also kept the Chihuahua and Cotija cheeses used in the original. And added a bit of Mexican Cream for garnish since I absolutely love it.
I found these items at a Mexican grocery store in Chicago, but I’m finding they are becoming more widely available at so-called mainstream grocery stores in major cities as people become more interested in making Mexican food at home. I loved the salty bite of the Cotija. It reminded me of a less briney and more crumby version of Feta. I also enjoyed the Chihuahua, but I have to be honest, this to me, although melting impeccably, tasted pretty similar to Monterey Jack so if that is more widely available to you, it would be a good substitute as well. Though it’s not an exact swap, you could also try a good cheddar, not too mild and not too sharp.
But whichever you choose, make this. It’s delicious. The creamy beans are perfect against the molten cheese and the meaty mushrooms. Add the slight heat of the peppers and you have a meal that is deliciously balanced in flavor.
Huarache dough adapted from Rick Bayless, mushroom and poblano topping adapted from Epicurious
Makes 8 huaraches, serving 8 as an appetizer or a light meal with salad or 4 as a more filling meal
-1 3/4 cups powdered masa harina for tortillas (such as Maseca brand)
-1 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot tap water
-3/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to season mushrooms to taste
-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
-1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
-1/2 large sweet onion, cut into strips
-1 fresh poblano chili, halved, seeded and thinly sliced into long strips
-1 teaspoon ground cumin
-1 cup vegetarian refried beans (either canned or homemade)
-1 cup shredded Queso Chihuahua
-1/3 cup Cotija, crumbled
-1/4 cup Mexican Crema
In medium bowl, mix together masa harina and 3/4 teaspoon salt and 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons hot tap water. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest while preparing remaining ingredients.
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, onion and poblanos; sauté mixture until the mushrooms have darkened and released their moisture, about 5 minutes. Mix in ground cumin. Season to taste with salt. Transfer mixture to medium bowl.
Rinse out and dry skillet. Coat with another tablespoon of vegetable oil and place over medium heat. If necessary, knead a few drops of water into the masa to give it the consistency of soft cookie dough. Divide into 8 portions; cover with plastic. One by one, form huaraches: Line tortilla press with two pieces of plastic cut to fit plates. (Rick Bayless recommends cutting them from a plastic storage bag, which is what I did.) Roll a portion of masa into a cigar shape about 5 inches long.
Using tortilla press, gently press out between sheets of plastic – perpendicular to handle of press – into 6-inch oval. Peel off top sheet of plastic. Flip – uncovered side down – onto the fingers of one hand and gently peel off second piece of plastic. In as smooth a movement as possible, roll huarache off hand and onto griddle or skillet. After about 1 minute, flip and cook for another 2 minutes until lightly browned. Remove to a plate and cover lightly with plastic. Repeat with remaining dough. (Note that if you don’t have a tortilla press, you can place your ball of dough between the pieces of plastic and roll out using a rolling pin until you’ve achieved your 6-inch oval or you can pat the dough into the oval by hand.)
To finish your huaraches, coat the pan with the remaining oil. Divide the bean mixture evenly among the huaraches and spread with a knife so they evenly cover the service. Top each with the shredded Queso Chihuahua and he mushroom mixture. When the pan is hot, return as many huaraches to the pan as will fit in a single layer. Cover with a lid and cook until the cheese has melted (about 2-3 minutes.) Remove from the heat and top with crumbled cotija and drizzle Crema over the top.